Vietnam, War, Faces
By Thom Stoddert, 2/17th Cav, 1970
Walking between a large truck and a sandbag wall one day, I was checking up on all the workers I had been assigned to supervise, when the shadow of someone in the truck warned me to duck. As I did, a shovel swung past where my head had been. Looking up I saw a young Vietnamese woman waving her arms and yelling at me - I was number 10 (a very bad person) and a few English words were added for further injury. Rather amused more than anything else, this confirmed she was unstable and I stayed even farther from her.
Guarding civilian workers was the price we had to pay when our platoon was not first up for a mission. We were the 101st Airborne Division’s reaction force during the Vietnam War and usually each morning a buck sergeant with a driver would pick up ten women from a local village. Bringing them each day on to the camp to perform the more mundane chores, thus we were freed to clean latrines or rearm helicopter gunships. This arrangement also provided a good income for them. In time, we got to recognize individuals despite how impersonal it all was. The majority of the women appeared to be older than my own mother except for two who were about my age, nineteen.
I tried to flirt with the cute girl that day by being extra nice to her, but she was always aloof. The other was not pretty and had a volatile disposition. So at all times I ignored her and was not disturbed by her hostility towards me, for once, I was innocent.
Chuckling to myself after the shovel incident, I walked around to the front of the
work area and watched the older women working. It was hot and in direct sunlight, so I got a large insulated container, had it filled with water and ice, and placed it outside for the women to have something cold to drink.
They all lined up in a row, each taking their turn filling a paper cup and walking away to enjoy it. However, one older woman filled a cup with cold water and then walked over to me. Bowing, she offered it to me before she went back to fill a cup for herself. Thinking to myself, more feeling than cognition, I was left with a desire to learn who she was. What was her life about?
Months later, I again had the dubious privilege of picking up the Vietnamese work detail, but that time we could only afford to pay for eight workers. As soon as we got to the pickup point in the village, they all climbed on the back of the truck before the sergeant could select who would be left behind. Sgt Hollingsworth tried to be sensitive to Vietnamese culture by selecting the oldest first. The cute girl with all décor got off the truck; however, the crazy one wrapped her arms around the wooden seats and refused to get off. While arguing with her in a loud voice and gestures, the sergeant saw someone in the front trying to steal my bandoleer of ammo. Tensions were mounting and we were getting desperate to get back. It ended when I cocked my rifle and put it to her head.
As she was getting off I felt something pulling at my elbow. It was a boy about eleven years old almost in tears asking me in broken English to not shoot mama-son. Two years before in the same area the communist army systematically killed thousands. I shook my head and smiled to reassure him, it wasn’t loaded.
There were many complicated and convoluted events I witnessed that year at war, and only years later would I begin to understand those issues. I have much to be grateful for when I think about what has been given to me by the Vietnamese community now living here in Seattle. During a formal ceremony they thanked us for our sacrifice. Coming from a people who had lost everything, it has almost overcome the sense of betrayal and condemnation many of us carried from that time from our own country. I still think, “what about the men in my unit who were born in Vietnam, fought alongside us though they started out as the enemy.”
The Vietnam War was first, last, and always a political war for supremacy between two opposing ideologies, communism and democracy. One demanded strict adherence to the central government and the other allowed freedom of choice. Yet ordinary combatants on both sides were first, last, and always a pawn. Thousands bled while the peacemakers talked for years in Paris, even wining Nobel Medals.
The military at that time had a program to allow former enemy soldiers to come along side of us, live with us, and fight with us- the Kit Carson Scout. Cam Tho was a former communist soldier from the North who held the rank of sergeant major. Despite his affairs in the black market, he was highly respected for his professional military skills. He kept the younger scouts in tow and saved many American lives. I am not sure why he switched sides, maybe he hated communism or he saw that it was only a matter of time before he died in the meat-grinder. The communist ideologues, while sitting in their safe offices, had no problem with sending their population of young men and women to the South till the conclusion of the war or their death. All that was important was the maintenance and expansion of communism.
Maybe that is why Nguyen Si De, a math major at the University of Hanoi switched sides when he was drafted. He was reliable and loyal, teaching us the jungle craft of the enemy so we could better survive. He died in a helicopter crash that also killed Danny Archer of Garfield, Washington.
Luong Cong DU was a communist Vietcong guerilla who joined us. Despite blood shooting out both sides of his shoulder, he stood and fought so the others could organize a defense after being ambushed. Before he died in the same crash that killed De and Danny Archer, he would write my mother and she sent him cookies. A fierce warrior, yet child-like, I loved him. Good translations of Vietnamese to English were rare and we never understood his choices and sacrifices. The same for De and Cam, we never fully understood.
It is believed that Cam survived the war; however this is a misnomer, when the communist North Vietnamese took over the South they brutally punished those who were members of the South Vietnamese armed forces. Unless he was able to escape by sea, it is very unlikely he would have been allowed to live and half of those who tried to escape by boat, drowned.
War is hell except for the politicians, but they never get to know, enjoy, and love the real faces of the real people that their decisions affect.
-I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.
William Tecumseh Sherman